I guess you could say the third time’s a charm, as Tuesday brought forth another plan to bring baseball back… and at first glance, the layout looks encouraging, at least schedule-wise, for the two-time NL East champion Braves.
MLB discussing plan to start season with three 10-team divisions, and expanded postseason, with hopes of playing in own home stadiums this summer. https://t.co/aHeNftRZhj
— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) April 28, 2020
But first, let’s dive into the specifics…
Originally, reported by USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, MLB officials have become “cautiously optimistic” that a return date for baseball could come as soon as late June and no later than July 2. However, at this time, nothing is set in stone. Much like the last two proposals, MLB is considering a complete restructuring of its leagues and divisions, primarily focused on keeping teams within their respective regions. And of course, to do such a thing means completely wiping out the AL and NL. Here’s the proposed three-division, 10-team plan, with the Braves in the Central:
(* for playoffs in ’19)
- Red Sox
- Blue Jays
- White Sox
It’s still too early, but the hope is that, with starting sometime in late June, that teams will play at least 100 games during the regular season before having an expanded postseason. Even if the league runs into problems while attempting to restart and a return date isn’t possible until July 2nd, you’re only talking an extra month (compared to a normal season) of regular season baseball to reach the 100-game mark, meaning the 2020 campaign would run to the end of October, with the playoffs taking place in November. I mean, arrange your neutral-site postseason series for the sake of cold weather, and you’re set!
What’s also promising about this new proposal is that it can be intertwined with the two previous plans if need be. If you can remember a few months ago, MLB started discussing an almost impossible task of basically sequestering thousands of people within the metro Phoenix area, so that baseball could ensure the health of all involved. The plan seemed far fetched then, and it still does now. But then a few weeks later, the Phoenix plan grew into an Arizona/Florida combo that placed teams in their Spring Training leagues. And over the last week or so, there have even been rumors of a three-state plan involving Texas, though it never gained as much traction.
This new plan released Tuesday appears to have the ability to cover all of the basis, given teams could start in Arizona, Florida or Texas (or a combination of all three). But, as Nightengale mentions in his write-up, the utmost desire is for teams to play in their home parks, whether that means an initial period with no fans or some limited attendance. And of course, if teams receive the green light to play in their cities, the new divisions should keep players from exposing themselves to the entire country.
From my viewpoint, this is MLB’s best plan yet, and quite frankly, I think it’s perfect when you account for the fact that the league can pace a “full return to normal” with the progression of more COVID-19 testing.
But what about this plan favors the Braves in particular? If you’ve started looking at the “new” Central division and its members, then I’m sure you already have a pretty good idea. Although here are my takeaways…
The Braves will face lighter starting pitching
Of the ten teams in the new proposal’s Central division, only two finished within the top-10 of FanGraphs’ Depth Charts projections for starting pitching — the Reds (5th) and Indians (9th). The rest of the division is mostly made up of a bunch of mid-tier starting rotations, plus the Tigers and Royals, who are both expected to finish the 2020 season as bottom-ten teams when it comes to pitching (and everything else).
Cincinnati will be tough with a top-three of Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, and Trevor Bauer. The Indians with Mike Clevinger, Shane Bieber and Carlos Carrasco (though Clevinger is coming off a knee surgery from February) have a loaded rotation. And of course, Jack Flaherty from the Cardinals will always be a challenging assignment. Still, it’s not like the Braves will be forced to face Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard (he already opted for TJ surgery anyways), Max Scherzer, and Stephen Strasburg seemingly every week. The Braves should put up even more runs in the Central.
Braves’ pitchers should keep the ball in the park
Admittedly, this isn’t the greatest of advantages (especially if the season is forced to begin in some kind of hub-style arrangement) but if you pay attention to yearly park factors, the Central looks to be laid out well for home run suppression (hello Mike Soroka and Cole Hamels).
Four of the ten Central teams finished last season in the bottom-10 in regards to their home ballpark’s HR park factor. Of the other six, only the White Sox, Reds, and Tigers had a top-10 score, with the Braves (15th), Indians (13th), and Brewers (14th) finishing up around average.
This goes both ways and could wind up hurting the Braves’ offense as well, but I’d much rather play games in stadiums less susceptible to homers than the other way around, given the Braves’ starting rotation will once again — save for Hamels and potentially King Felix — feature a plethora of young arms. This might be small stuff, but playing in a ton of big parks could end up being a blessing for the Braves.
The Central just looks plain easy
Look, I’ve tried to find specific quirks, but the truth is if this plan becomes mandated, the Braves will be sitting pretty. Of the three divisions, the Central is no doubt the least competitive.
Granted, the Central does include a few teams looking to push out of their rebuilds (in the White Sox and Reds) and if you look at 2019’s playoff picture (which I’ve labeled above with a *), this newly constructed Central division features four teams, compared to just three from the East and West; but the depth of this division is nowhere near the likes of the other two, and it also lacks a dominant team (other than perhaps… the Braves).
The West, in my opinion, is the most dangerous with the Dodgers and Astros as division powerhouses. Then there’s the Athletics as challengers, plus the Padres, Angels, and D’Backs that could make things interesting. Honestly, any team NOT in the West division should be happy. The East is built a lot like the Central, with the Yankees, Nationals, and Rays as the top teams, followed by several clubs that could shake things up each year but haven’t done it yet in the Mets, Phillies and Blue Jays. However, like the Central, the East has the benefit of playing cellar-dwellers like the Orioles, Marlins, and Pirates.
But of course, all of this talk about competition and divisions is a bit premature. As I mentioned above, NONE of this is set in stone, and all plans remain just talk. As NBC Sports Christian Red said earlier this month when speaking about a return to baseball: “We’re in the pregame stretch with any of these ideas. We’re not even close to the first inning.”
With over 1 million COVID-19 cases reported in the US and almost 60,000 deaths related to the virus (as of Wednesday morning), this pandemic is not over, regardless of whether states are beginning to get antsy with their shelter in place orders. But eventually, this WILL be over, and with the country headed for its sharpest recession in history (the country’s economy shrank at an almost 5% rate in the first quarter of 2020, according to the Commerce Department), there needs to be a collective effort towards planning a return to normalcy, and yes that includes baseball.
This country has always seemed to persevere through tragedy, whether it was a baseball game at Shea Stadium after 9/11, or the Lakers’ first basketball game after Kobe Bryant’s death. There will be another first baseball game “after the coronavirus,” and as MLB continues to present ideas, the best thing we can do is remain optimistic. Either way, hopefully, Chip, Jeff (and even Joe) will be back with us next month. We need Braves baseball in our lives!